He made nice. Went out like a diplomat. He smiled, laughed deeply, and anyone he could possibly thank, he thanked. He thanked family, friends, children, teammates, his owner, his coaches, the ball boys, the reporters, the guys who made the food, the guys who laid out his uniform and his socks, the guys who made plastic splints for his injured feet and hands. Thirteen years in the NBA, two years in college, four years of high school ball — he went through all of it. At one point during the news conference, a cynical observer leaned over and whispered: “Let me get this straight. Did he get the bicycle on his 12th birthday or his 13th?”
Ah, well. Such is the curious reaction to Isiah Thomas, who was always more inspiring on the court than off. You can’t blame him for taking his time.
How else do you sum up a life? And that is what this farewell was to the guy Julius Erving calls “the greatest little man in NBA history” — not a career, not a job. A life.
“If not for the basketball,” Thomas, 33, said Wednesday, holding up an imaginary sphere and gazing like a child, “if not for the basketball. . . . I wouldn’t have anything. I wouldn’t have even met my wife.”
And he wouldn’t have wound up here, Detroit, a city he once had no desire to see and now has no desire to leave. Thomas, the Pistons’ all-time leader in points, steals and assists, was a lot of things during his sports career, some great, some not so great, some championship-caliber, some straight off the streets of his youth. He did good things and he did ugly things and he made some enemies and he probably didn’t get the credit he deserved and he definitely didn’t get the praise, the money, the endorsements or the Olympic gold medals that peers like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird took into their sunsets. But through it all, the one thing Thomas always had that they never could was this city.
He owned it. He defined it. He represented it.
So, funny, isn’t it, that on Wednesday, as he hobbled to the stage with his Achilles tendon injury, a walking contradiction, a basketball player who, at the moment, needs crutches, a kid from Chicago’s streets now wearing silk suits and $100 ties, a man who loves the game but will never really play it again — funny, isn’t it, how this thought occurs:
Everybody here knows his name.
And so few know who he is.
Of all the questions a sportswriter gets asked in this town, these are the most frequent: “What is Isiah Thomas really like?” Or, “Is Isiah really the guy he pretends to be?” Or, “What’s the deal with Isiah?”
How can you answer? There is no denying Thomas is a complex man, a powerful, intelligent, image-conscious entertainer. Maybe because he came here so young — he was only 19 when he was drafted — and grew up before our eyes, that’s why we have such conflicting pictures.
We see the childlike Isiah of the early 1980s, who seemed to laugh from jump ball to buzzer, and we see the spiteful Isiah of 1991, who led his teammates in a nasty snub of the Chicago Bulls.
We see the heroic Isiah who scored 25 points in a single championship quarter against the Lakers — while playing on a gimpy ankle — and the bully Isiah, who sucker-punched a teammate, Bill Laimbeer, during practice.
We see a crafty businessman who, just a few months ago, called his own news conference to announce an arrangement that would secure him in the front office and make him rich. “I will be a Piston for life,” Thomas crowed. “This is the happiest day of my career.”
Yet Wednesday, in the very same room, he said this: “I won’t have any future role in the Pistons organization.”
“What happened?” Thomas was asked.
“It just didn’t work out,” he said. And later, “All the jobs were full.”
Meanwhile, Bill Davidson, with whom Isiah supposedly had this arrangement, did his own little confusion dance.
Was ownership the issue?
Davidson: “No comment on that.”
Was there ever a deal like the one reported in the media?
“There was never such a deal.”
Would you like Isiah to stay in the organization?
But he just said he has no role with the Pistons.
“That’s what he’s saying now.”
It could be different in the future.
“You never know.”
Hmm. These two should take their act on the road.
But you know what? Stuff like this follows Isiah Thomas around. Misinformation. Coy responses. Rumors. Sometimes he’s the victim. Sometimes he’s the culprit. And you know what else?
It doesn’t matter. Not anymore.
What will be will be. At his best on center stage
Better, on this morning after his good-bye, to remember Thomas for the show he put on, because ultimately, that’s what entertainers are remembered for, isn’t it? The show? And Thomas — at his best on center stage — was impossible to ignore.
You can still see him screaming into the teeth of a defense, gliding, pumping and somehow laying the ball in the basket, while taller men swatted awkwardly at him, like a camel’s tail swats at flies.
You can still see him dancing at center court, arms behind his back, holding the basketball and spinning in a delirious circle.
You can still see that night he scored 16 points in 94 seconds in a playoff game against the Knicks, or the night he made 13 shots in a row, or that heroic twilight against Los Angeles at the Forum, when he could feel his ankle going south, and he threw in 25 points in the third quarter in a desperate attempt to win the championship before his leg was useless.
“Some guys know how to play,” said Vinnie Johnson, his longtime backcourt mate during all those years, “and some guys know how to win. Isiah knew how to win.”
And win he did. He won two championships, was MVP of one, appeared in 11 All-Star games, was MVP of two, he set all kinds of assists records, rewrote the Pistons stats book, and — perhaps most remarkably — never had anyone say that he’s short, even though, for his game, he is.
“I recently watched my highlight reel,” Thomas, 6-foot-1, said Wednesday, in his own unique way, “and I looked at a list of all the things I’ve done. And if someone said you’ve got to do it all again, I wouldn’t even attempt it. . . .” The final memories
A few nights ago, Thomas, Johnson, Laimbeer and Joe Dumars jumped in a private plane and flew to Springfield, Mass., to see Chuck Daly get inducted into the Hall of Fame. What an nostalgic little journey, when you think about it. Here was Daly, snubbed out of Detroit, yet being inducted into the Hall of Fame for what he did here. And here was Laimbeer, retired, now a working stiff like the rest of the world — albeit a rich one — and Johnson, also retired, now doing radio commentary, and Dumars, the only active one in the group, left to captain a ship that barely resembles the Bad Boy vessel of the late 1980s.
And Thomas, who was on the cusp that night, going from player to ex-player. What must he have been thinking during that flight?
“The hardest decision an athlete has to make is to know when to say good-bye,” he said Wednesday. “I’ll never get on a court again. And the toughest thing of my life is to let it go.”
He took questions. He spoke about his memories. He was, typically, charming, overbearing, sincere and a spin doctor. Toward the end of the news conference, Thomas compared leaving the game to a poster he had on his wall at college, a common poster, a picture of a dove, above the phrase “If you love something set it free. If it was yours, it will come back to you.”
“I love the game,” Thomas said, “but I know it will never come back to me.”
And yet, Thomas will come back to the game, over and over, in highlight reels and videos, in reprinted photos, and media guides, in books and newspapers and stories told from father to son and mother to daughter, about the Bad Boys days, the hot nights in the Palace, the time in this city when you couldn’t go anywhere and not talk about the basketball team.
This is the beauty of memory: all the confusion, the rumors, the off-court shenanigans that were indeed a big part of Thomas’ career will ultimately sink
like leaves on an autumn lake, leaving only this picture: Isiah streaking down a basketball floor, scissoring the ball through his legs, then pulling up and launching a rainbow jumper. And as it kisses through the net, he is already backpedalling, licking his lips, like a tiger with a taste for the prey.
That’s the final snapshot you take of Thomas, if you’re a fan. In uniform. In action. It’s the magic of the stage, the beauty of time. And the nicest way to say good-bye.